“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
― Maya Angelou
This post was originally published on March 3, 2020 and was partially updated on March 4, 2021.
Today is the first day of the NEA’s Read Across America (RAA) week, and for the second year in a row I’ve sent emails to my children’s teachers and school administration informing them that my daughters would not be participating in activities that are centered around Dr. Seuss. This was not an easy decision, nor was it one that my husband and I made lightly, but it’s the step we knew was right for us after “knowing better” about the legacy of Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.
In very recent history, you would have found my timeline filled with photos of my girls in their Dr. Seuss themed attire, and even a cute video wishing him a happy birthday. We had a nice collection of his books, and they felt like the quintessential staple every family with kids needed in their home. That is, until I saw some disturbing images. Images that didn’t correlate with this beloved man of the literary world, and one adults and children alike feel so connected to. But they were images that made my stomach turn nonetheless.
This speaks for itself, and a simple Google search will lead you to many, many more disturbing and dehumanizing examples such as this. You’ll see images with liberal use of the n-word, black people as gorillas, monkeys and cannibals, sexist depictions of women, and Japanese individuals drawn with pig noses and bombs. These ideals were not limited to political cartoons and publications, which is what led to this particular section of the letter I submitted:
The multitude of disturbing examples extends to overt and allegorical depictions of race within many of his children’s books as well, including research pointing to The Cat in the Hat’s origins being based on a Black woman named Annie Williams, and inspired by the highly offensive blackface and minstrel stereotypes.
In light of the mounting evidence, the National Education Association began to rethink their RAA emphasis on Dr. Seuss books and activities in 2017, and officially released a new mission statement on September 16, 2019. One that is instead geared towards what should be viewed as one of our country’s greatest strengths: diversity.
A number of schools and organizations have followed suit, recognizing that the joy and importance of reading need not be solely synonymous with the works of Dr. Seuss.
There are a plethora of phenomenal authors to be highlighted. Those who promote unity and inclusion, while celebrating the beauty in our differences. And there are a multitude of books that show multicultural representation in healthy ways, rather than caricatures and stereotypes. These options are much more in line with our core beliefs as a family, and what I believe our school truly desires to stand for as well.
This is but a snippet of what I sent, and I admit to holding my breath while anxiously awaiting a response.
Was I taking this too far?
Was I blowing this out of proportion?
What about the girls?
Would they really be as fine with not participating as they said they would be?
Why can’t I just let this one go?
All these thoughts and more ran through my head, but the one I needed most began to stand out:
You can’t let this go because of your convictions, and no one says you have to.
I, along with my husband, are not comfortable being cheerleaders for a man with such a troubled history of racism, and voicing this, it turns out, was not the end of the world.
There are some who say he was simply a “product of his time”, but this reasoning always perplexes me. What about those who lived during “his time” who weren’t overtly racist?
While others claim that his latter literary works like Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches were signs of his redemption and growth that’s not quite how I see it. I certainly believe we can evolve, (there is always room for that!), but an actual apology or amendments to his earlier works would be more proof positive of his supposed turn around.
I, like Dr. Seuss, am only human, and I’m certain that there are problematic authors or movies I still enjoy. It’s not an easy thing to lay down the familiar or challenge the status quo, but I’m on the journey and am willing to try.
For me and for our family, this is a place where it starts.
I’m not telling you what to do with this information, but I do have some discussions lined up that I hope will bring about positive and effective change.
I don’t have the luxury of ignoring racism and its heavy impact, but in the very least, if you don’t or won’t see it, consider the impact of a broader lens in which all children may see themselves.
People can change. I want people to change. I want there to be learning opportunities. We’re not one dimensional and there are complexities, but what’s a learning opportunity if you don’t recognize what’s detrimental in the first place?
What’s nuance if it is only used as a way to cover for or allow things that are damaging?
Why perpetuate more harm for the sake of tradition and nostalgia?
It’s not like there aren’t so many other examples that can teach the same lessons.
Why are we so hung up on this?
Let’s fight harder for ways to uphold the dignity of another human being, rather than clenching our fists more tightly around comfort, tradition and nostalgia when it’s harmful.
Let’s fight for ways to expand and include, not ignore and exclude, and let that be at the heart of our joy for reading.
Visit these sites for more on this topic: